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Review: Carpenter’s Bluff by James Sanders

★★★★ Carpenter's Bluff by James Sanders

Our adult lives are largely influenced by the uncharted events of our youth and nowhere is this more evident than in Carpenter’s Bluff, James Sanders’ moving literary tale of youthful indiscretions and dark secrets.

Henry “Hank” Anawatty is a young attorney with some serious problems in his life, the most pressing one being that the woman he’s been seeing has disappeared. In desperation, he goes to see a shrink and little by little, her pointed questions chink away at Hank’s armor, revealing a less-than-idyllic childhood spent dodging an abusive father, not to mention harboring lingering guilt over his mother’s tragic death – one that left Hank and his siblings exposed to his father’s relentless anger.

Tempering young Hank’s crazy home life was his relationship with his best friends, Paddy and Jack, and a special girl named Julianna. However, a dark, ugly secret from his youth has battered away at adult Hank’s vulnerable soul, rendering him unemployed and a pathetic alcoholic, barely hanging on to a life that is spinning alarmingly out of control. Hank’s confessions are only the tip of the huge iceberg that is his very complicated story…

Carpenter’s Bluff alternates between 1987 and Hank’s youth in understated but evocative prose. Character-driven with many moving parts, Sanders gives us a flawed main protagonist who’s slowly suffocating under the weight of his guilt. Callous betrayals and youthful indiscretions drive a wedge between Hank and one of his best friends and girlfriend, but it’s the awful secret from their past that ultimately threatens to destroy them all, giving the book an absorbing drama at its core.

Sanders paints a sobering picture of the human psyche as he systematically deconstructs Hank’s 33-year-old life to expose his pain and vulnerabilities, which will be recognizable to most anyone. Hank’s reunion with Julianna is especially poignant, thanks to the passage of some difficult years that have left their mark on both of them. Both characters have wisdom wrought by bad choices, emotional trauma, and self-imposed isolation that has left them particularly vulnerable.

Readers cannot help but be frustrated at times by Hank’s self-imposed isolation and his inability to resist the bottle, especially during Christmas in the cabin, where Hank has seemingly lost his will to live and his lack of resolve is almost palpable. This moment exemplifies Sanders’ skill as a writer in conveying a host of emotions in his characters without the excessive use of adjectives and other writing clichés. The book could be best described as artfully spare – a literary novel without ever being overly purple.

Overall, Carpenter’s Bluff is a wonderful story that uses effective narrative to convey a plethora of emotion and angst, while never being maudlin or overwrought. Sanders deftly combines all of the moving parts in his story into a seamless stream of emotion and artful imagery. There are some typos here and there, but the strength of Sanders’ prose, and the relatable intensity of Hank’s story, gives Carpenter’s Bluff real emotional weight, and a sense of poetry all its own.

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Carpenter's Bluff